“It’s true! There is strength in vulnerability”, came a wise reflection from one of my teenage students this past summer after a workshop on emotional expression. It comes as no surprise that the ability to express our selves emotionally is a vital component for mental health and social development, but little attention is given to the physical health benefits of emotional expression. We often overlook the biological connection between physical health and emotional release.
Aside from occasional tears of bittersweet joy, most people associate crying with negative emotions such as sadness, defeat and pain. We cry when life feels heavy, things feel out of our control and when we suffer great losses. We hold back tears in an effort to conceal our vulnerability and only let them through when the reality of a situation becomes unbearable. We forget that our tears have a beautiful softness to them. Current research, however, is highlighting the benefits of crying, encouraging us remember our softness and reshape our relationship to our tears.
Not all tears are created equal. There is a significant compositional difference between the tears that consistently lubricate our eyes (basal tears), the tears we shed in reaction to cutting an onion (reflex tears), and the tears that fall when we suffer emotional stress or physical pain (psychic tears). Emotional tears, which are unique to humans, are loaded with hormones, including prolactin, adrenocorticotropin hormone and leucine enkephalin (which also acts as a natural pain killer). One explanation for the relief so many people feel after a bout of tears may be related to the release of stress hormones from the body. Tears have a complex relationship both the limbic system and the nervous system.
Opinions differ among the scientific community as to whether crying has an overall positive or negative impact on the body’s physiology, and some researchers believe that crying effects people with various emotional temperaments differently. Many social scientists point to a persons own emotional insight as a main factor for how the experience is perceived. There is still much to learn and the phenomena warrants further research and exploration.
When viewed through the lens of physiological benefits, words such as “just feel how you feel” take on a new meaning. These words can be enough to get someone through difficult times by cultivating patience instead of resistance. Rather than fighting the urge to cry, people can learn to open to the experience, trusting the body’s innate wisdom and adaptive coping strategies. The focus can then turn from controlling our emotions, to finding healthy ways to express them.